Top Ten Underreported Humanitarian Stories

For the past decade, Médecins Sans Frontières has been releasing a top ten list of the world’s most underreported humanitarian emergencies. They were inspired to do so after a major famine that occured in Sudan in 1998 received almost no coverage in the American media. The list for 2007 is now out, and, as it previous years, certain crises zones continue to reappear:

The [Democratic Republic of Congo] and Colombia, both wracked by ongoing civil conflict and massive internal displacement of civilians, have dominated the list over the past decade, each appearing a total of nine times. The humanitarian consequence of war in Chechnya has appeared eight times. Somalia has appeared seven times, most recently because renewed fighting centered in Mogadishu in 2007 has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes, only to endure disease and extremely precarious living conditions.

According to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the online media-tracking journal, “The Tyndall Report,” the countries and contexts highlighted by MSF on this year’s list accounted for just 18 minutes of coverage on the three major U.S. television networks’ nightly newscasts from January through November 2007. . . . Chechnya, Sri Lanka, and [Central African Republic]—where many villages were burned to the ground in fighting between government forces and rebels and tens of thousands of people fled into inhospitable forests seeking safety—were never mentioned.

Eighteen minutes is not a lot. The tsunami that hit Asia in 2004 generated massive media coverage. There is a Nobel prize waiting for someone who can figure out how to ensure that political disasters someday receive the same attention as natural ones.

2 thoughts on “Top Ten Underreported Humanitarian Stories

  1. Excellent point, Andy. I’ve always thought that the reason we respond so enthusiastically to natural disasters is that they present us with an engineering problem: take this much money, that amount of supplies, this location, these pieces of equipment and do the best you can with them. Such problems are morally simple at the macro scale (save people!), and almost any effort produces a satisfying feeling of having done good. The media narrative of women and children in peril virtually writes itself.

    Political disasters, by contrast, have sides to them, and when we intervene we almost immediately begin to get our white hats dirty. Even the innocent victims have a patina of possible guilt and culpability — what did they do to provoke the government? Why didn’t they flee earlier? Also reporting well on political disasters takes research and a long-term presence in the country. To a budget-constrained news director, um, well, no thanks.

  2. Thanks Ian. I think you captured the difference in a nutshell. Perhaps some political disasters can also seem like they will go on forever, and so generate a sense of futility that is not present with natural disasters, which are usually one-time aberrations.

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